If smart city is the solution, what was the problem?

smart cities

By Professor Herman van den Bosch

The promise of the smart city is one of the digitally-enabled data-driven, continually sensed, responsive and integrated urban environment and a manageable entity. Whether this promise will be kept is questionable: what remains to be seen, is the extend to which the smart city agenda is anything else than another instantiation of corporate power grabs, entrenching surveillance, private control over urban management.  

The concept of a smart city refers at a loosely connected set of confluences between data, digital and other technologies, and urban processes. A repacking neoliberalism in the dressing of seductive technologies and reimagined municipalities and citizens. The modern city is a battleground of market forces, an icon of consumerism, and it is characterized by growing inequality, alienation and intolerance. Digital technologies are associated with control and power.

Looking for an answer to the question whether a smart city is a city of smart people or one of smart technology, I found the proceedings of the symposion Beware of Smart People! Redefining the Smart City Paradigm towards Inclusive Urbanism held in Berlin on 19 – June 20, 2015. This post is partly based on this report, in which I recognize many ongoing discussions.

The world’s population is growing and concentrating in cities. Needless to say that this causes major problems, especially in emerging countries. At the same time, business also concentrates in urban areas. Consequently, cities compete at world level and – inspite of all problems – position themselves as global, affluent, mundane, and smart.

smart cities

Control centre in Rio de Janeiro

From citizens for citizens: commoning

Opposite to the technology-dominated image of smart cities is the concept of commoning: Citizens share, shape and maintain their living space together based on principles of share-economics and direct democracy more than on the basis of technology. Residents’ initiatives to enforce an alternative land-use at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin are a frequently cited example.

smart cities

Commoning at former airport Tempelhof

Is the smart city an urban Utopia?

Another way to frame the smart city is the perspective of urban Utopia. Examples are Songdo (South Korea), Mazdar (UAE), Dholera (India) and PlanIT Valley in Portugal, who are all developed from scratch. Investors value these cities as assets in global competition, because of attractive living conditions, full-featured office space, outstanding connectivity and accessibility and high environmental standards. Residents are considered as beneficiaries but in a lesser degree as active participants.

In spite of the huge investments, these smart utopias rarely are a successful. In some cases they turned into ghost cities, like Ordos in China. Songdo (South Korea) is successfully attracting residents from the adjacent overcrowded town of Seoul but the number of international companies remains far behind expectations. Traffic on the $ 1.4 billion,12 km long six-lane suspension bridge connecting the city to the airport is low while a fast rail link with Seoul is seriously missed.

smart cities

Songdo ‘smart city’, developed from scratch

The questions and answers for the ‘real’ smart city

One might wonder whether these different approaches of smart city are compatible.

I believe that the the answer is confirmatory. However, four questions must be answered in advance:

1. What is the most desirable use of urban space, seen from a multi-actor and multi-stakeholder perspective?

2. How can all residents maximize their participation in urban life?

3. What mix of companies generate the most diversified sustainable employment?

4. What is the best way to involve as many citizens as possible in decision making at all levels?

The role of data, digital facilities and other technologies must be considered in conjunction with answering these four questions.

The ‘real’ smart city needs to start with the city and its attendant social problems, rather than looking immediately to smart technology for answers.

Proceeding this way prevents narrow technological thinking and opens the way to low-tech or no-tech solutions. Consequently, a city can claim to be ‘really’ smart if “investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory government.

Gautam Bahm: smart cities do not exist

A special contribution during the symposium came from Gautam Bahm from India. In his opinion, the smart city does not exist; placeless concepts have no meaning. A smart city in India is something completely else than a German one. In Indian cities commoning is quite common: big parts of cities are auto-constructed, deploying another logic than planners and architects do.

However, there is a great need for a basic infrastructure: About 17 percent of the ground is covered with ramshackled pipelines for water supply and sewerage. The same goes for the wires for electricity and telephone. Here is an tremendous challenge for urban planning, which is willing to adapt the existing fabric of local communities, rather than destroying it, as is happened in China and many other places.

The concept of ‘smart city’ might become an icon of a new digitally facilitated form of living in urban space. This requires a view of the city as a place that is inclusive, shared and negotiated. A place that considers residents as active producers and contributors because of their thorough local knowledge, expertise, creativity, networking skills and entrepreneurship.

*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Herman van den Bosch


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